Rachel Shadoan Muses

What Ethnographers Do: The Art of the Email Interview

The internet is a many-splendored thing, and its advent and success has vastly expanded the reach of your average ethnographer. Information that we could once only access in face-to-face interactions can now be collected remotely, from across an ocean, across continents, across time and space. This is a great opportunity to learn more about people, largely unrestricted by geography and time.

However, it also presents a significant challenge. We have to develop new methods and tools to perform good remote ethnographies. In previous projects we have defaulted to Skype video calls–the next best thing, we thought, to in-person interviews. But when you live eight to ten time zones away from a participant, negotiating school, work, and leisure schedules to set up a Skype call can be nearly impossible. And, as much as we love our participants, at 3 am our time, we ethnographers much prefer to be sleeping.

The obvious solution to this was to develop an email interview. In our mind it had several advantages. It allowed the participant to respond to the questions in their own time, in a low-stress way. It removed the need for scheduling ninjitsu. And, it produced a ready-made transcript of the interaction, easing the field-note writing and analysis processes.

Our first iteration of the email interview was something like an open-ended survey. It explained the project and supplied the appropriate participant information and consent forms. Then, it listed the questions. It was in many ways a participant friendly version of the interview guide.

While the turnaround on the email interview surveys was really good from a time perspective, we felt that the answers we were getting were very short, to the point, and formal. This is in contrast to our in-person interviews, where answers to one question would often meander through several equally interesting subjects in the process of their completion.

So I thought a lot about how the in-person interviews were different from the email interviews, and I realized it was that with in-person interviews, the participant doesn’t know all of the questions you will be asking up front. Usually we tell them what kind of questions we will be asking, or what kind of information we are looking for, but the specific questions are unknown. As a result, the participant will often include a lot more information in the answer to each question. There was something about seeing all of the questions all at once that was cutting off this meandering; something about having all of the questions in front of the participant at once made the answers short and to the point.

So our solution was to send email interview questions one at a time.

This was a tremendous success. When we sent the questions one at a time, the answers were long, rich, and varied. Compare the two images below–the red circles surround answers to the same question.

Email Interview Iteration 1.

Email Interivew Iteration 2

We have tried out the second iteration of email interviewing on several participants, and have been blown away with their responses.

There are probably restrictions that come with this method. It is probably not appropriate for people who do not normally communicate via text-based mediums. (Our participants are very comfortable with the written communication of the internet, so in our case this has not been an issue.) It might also be less appealing to very busy executives–our coursemate Cora is doing a project with such folks, and she feels that her participants would become irritated with the process after three questions.

All things considered, however, we feel that the potential benefits of this method are numerous. Beyond the increased time that the participant has to respond to a question, there is also the increased time that the ethnographer has to consider the response, research, and contemplate a next question. While we thought that text would remove some of the richness present in non-verbal communication, we find that the opposite is true–for people who have grown up communicating via text, email, and chat, they are accustomed to explicizing the implicit, and often expand more on their feelings via text than they would likely do in person.

Finally, we feel it holds great promise for participants for whom an in-person interview would create a great deal of anxiety. This allows them time to answer the questions, and alleviates much of the pressure they might feel when faced with a note-scribbling, recording-toting ethnographer.

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